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Vicki Tracy

Wilfred Jackson Interview
David Johnson

Wilfred Jackson was one of cartoon's greatest director. Coming to the studio in 1928 as Walt was in the throws of the Oswald debacle, he got into directing quite by accident, having helped Walt work out synchronization problems for the early sound cartoons (a method still used to this day). He remained until his retirement in the sixties. For Snow White, the world's first feature-length cartoon, he directed two major sequences, the entertainment section and the final sequence of the film beginning with the montage of the change of seasons. His work remains on this and others (he directed The Old Mill in the Multiplane Camera's debut in 1937) exemplary and helped to set a standard by which all subsequent cartoon directors must be judged. Here, from an interview in Winter 1988, shortly before his death,  he speaks at length of Snow White, Walt, Frank Churchill, arguably cartoon's greatest composer, as well as his own beginnings in the cartoon business, all in his own unique and self-effacing manner.

Note: Will Jackson was filmed dancing with Marge Belcher (now Champion) in imitation of Dopey on top of Sneezy to be used as a guide to the animators for the entertainment section of Snow White, fragments of which still exist.

This image is a blow-up of one of the rotoscopes of Jackson dancing with Marge Belcher. It was used as a gag and pinned up on a storyboard (Marge modelled for Snow White and would later be married briefly to Art Babbitt, animator of the Queen).

David Johnson:  Was the soundtrack (of the Silly Song) at that time, when it was being filmed, just a piano accompaniment?

Wilford Jackson:  To the best of my recollection, it was originally to a piano track. Now whether they made a preliminary orchestral take of that I'm not sure. I don't recall it being orchestra. That early in the cartoons we didn't usually pre-score music.

DJ: Would Frank (Churchill) have been there playing live or would they have done a loop for the soundtrack? When they filmed this, for study purposes?

WJ: Probably a piano track.

DJ: By him playing it for you [live] or it being already recorded?

WJ: More likely [the latter], but it was done either way.

DJ: Now, besides the entertainment section, what other parts of the movie did you direct?

WJ: The other one that comes to mind is the scene toward the end of the picture where the dwarfs are gathered around the [casket].

DJ: From there to the end of the movie?

WJ: Yes. I'm vague on whether I had any other sequences in animation. You see, in those days we worked closely in connection with the story deptartment during the development of the various sequences and I was in the story work and in on the preparation for animation for so many different parts of the picture but those two are the only ones that I recall actually directing.

DJ: So what exactly does a director do? I know you were in charge of some of the live action. But what else does a director do, for instance in the last scene.

WJ: You're speaking strictly of Snow White?

DJ: Right.

WJ: First of all, as the story work was nearing completion.... You're familiar with storyboards? As they were being prepared and hauled over and beginning to take shape after a series of meetings with Walt and the director, the story group - the director would work in there and get his ideas incorporated into the thing, then the sequence would be delivered to the director to begin his work. His first task was to time each scene and visualize the choreography of the action - what action went with what parts of the music, if it was a musical sequence, or, as in the ending here, [prior to the closing with the song "Some day my Prince will Come"] there would be a recording, a pre-recording of the dialogue of all the vocal sounds. The director would be in on that usually. Having recorded those sounds, the director would see to it that the whole thing was timed, put together on a sound track. If there was music involved the director would play out the scenes where you have this scene and you cut to a close-up and then you cut to something else and so forth, working with the layout man to prepare the visualization of the thing. Timing it was a matter of seeing if there was the right amount of time for all the different actions that had to take place and the pacing of the scene. The director in effect served as the film editor pre-cutting the picture before it was made. Does that make sense?

DJ: Yes, it makes sense.

WJ: There's a reason for that, if you care to know about it.

DJ: Well I know that it's because.

WJ: Because of the terrific expense. The pace of this particular sequence (where the prince comes down to pay his last repects)-- I believe that the sound was pre-recorded on that song and so it was my task partly to time the picture in such a way that it would look all right with the pre-determined length of the thing. Sometimes we would have to cut out actions that had been visualized and agreed on. Once and a while we would have to find some way of inserting action or expanding scenes in order for it to come out [correctly]. The music at the ending I'm not sure whether that was pre-recorded or not, when she road away on the horse.

DJ: Do you recall some of the discussions on this particular scene and how it would work for instance the animals would bow their heads and the dwarfs do likewise and Grumpy goes up and put the flowers on SW. Now, whose idea was it for G to go up and put flowers on SW?

WJ: Goodness, that idea originated in the story department early, before I picked the scene up, so I can't say. Of course... Let me say this about Snow White. The directors of Snow White didn't direct in the same way as they did on other pictures. In effect, Walt really directed that picture, he was so intensely involved in everything about it. And he was right in on everything that was done, right done to what color a character was painted. On Snow White, Walt was in on every last detail, it was Walt's picture, one hundred percent from beginning to end. That can't be said of any other picture that I've worked with him on after the very, very early Mickies and Silly Symphonies, very early.

DJ: So that could have been Walt's idea?

WJ: It could have been. It could have been somebody in the story department. It could have been....My  goodness, Walt talked to everybody about his pictures, he shaped them up that way. He talked to the gardener or the janitor or anybody he could get hold of. He worked the thing out in his own mind by telling and re-telling and re-telling the thing - bouncing it off of anybody. If you had an idea he would listen to it.

DJ: Were you involved in the very early stages of Snow White, say in late 34 and taken off of the shorts in and put in as.

WJ: No, quite to the contrary. I was very busy keeping animators busy and I was working on shorts during the preparation of Snow White and not able to spend as much time as I would like to have with the story then because I was terribly interested in our first feature, of course. So I was kept quite busy with short subjects during all the early preparation of it and to a much greater extent than in later feature work the story was quite well prepared, quite well rounded out in pretty much detail before I was involved in any of the sequences. Snow White was a unique picture in the way it was made. No other picture was made like that at the studio during my time.

DJ: Would some of the animation already have been done by the time you were called in?

WJ: Yes. The pilot sequence, the very first pilot sequence I saw was the one where the dwarfs, one scene or two or three scenes, where Snow White was asleep in the dwarfs bed and they came in and they were all around the bed there and they were ready to attack the monster, and she makes a little sound and moved and they all shot down behind the front of the bed and then they came up one after another with their noses popping up. That was the pilot scene.

DJ: Did you, as a director,  write out the dialogue on the exposure sheets that were then given to the animators, I mean on your own sequences?

WJ: Yes

DJ: So that those sheets are in your handwriting?


DJ: And Bill Cottrell would have written the dialogue on the sheets he afterwards gave Art Babbitt?

WJ: Yes, he wouldn't put the dialogue reading on.

DJ: What's the dialogue reading?

WJ: The dialogue reading is visual interpretation of the frames of dialogue. On the exposure sheet each line represents one frame. Well one of the cutters in the cutting department would put head phones on and run the dialogue on the moviola scoring it down with little pencil and make marks [for exactly how long each syllable would take]. And he would lay that out on the master exposure sheet and if there was a lot of dialogue in a sequence it was my practice to take the dialogue readings that I got from the cutter after we had the whole thing put in order and timed the way we thought it was going to be, I would lay my action out first of all on that before putting it on the exposure sheet. Then the task of transposing the dialogue reading we got from the film editor onto the animator's exposure sheet was handled by the assistant director. I have my scene cuts all indicated on the cutter's dialogue reading and the assistant director would lay out each scene on the exposure sheet and he wouldn't begin the thing at the top of the sheet - he would leave a little room for me to adjust the beginning of the scene and at the end of the scene I could always add or subtract something I wanted to. And he would lay it out with the scene number and the music room with all the different headings at the top. Those would probably be in my assistant's handwriting- not necessarily but probably. And that would be what I would use to indicate the action over in the action column - the vertical column at the extreme left - I would describe what goes on so that the animator would know where those different things came. Now this last step of actually laying the action on the exposure sheet was usually not done by the director by himself. First if all, if music was in anyway involved closely with the action which it was on almost all our early pictures including Snow White and Pinocchio, there was a musician in the director's room to work with him.

DJ: That's why it was called the Music Room.

1932 Disney Music Room - Click Here for larger image
The Muisc Room c.1932 showing Walt standing in the dooway with Frank Churchill to his left and Will Jackson sitting fourth from left. Notice particularly the painting of composer Franz Schubert above the piano on the right. This photo came into my possession only after Jackson had died (from animator Dick Lundy - seated second from left)but it tied into the interview with him as he mentions how Churchilll loved Schubert's melodies and this is the proof (without him mentioning this to me, no one would have known why Schubert is hovering over the Music Room's proceedings!). Click Here for larger image

WJ: Yes. We call it that and the musician would play music what was to be with the action over and over for the director to listen to and work with and to make adjustments with so we would each know what the thing was to be like - we'd each make our suggestions until the musician was satisfied that he had something that made sense musically and the director was satisfied that the action could fit within the timing. This was very preliminary of course. How much of that was done on Snow White I couldn't tell you. The sequences I had were pretty well worked out ahead of time, as far as music is concerned. Churchill (Snow White's key song writer) and Larry Morey, who wrote the lyrics, would work together and present to the story department in a meeting with Walt their proposal of what music and words and sounds would go with the action that the, well, business of what the story department had on the storyboard. And that was pretty well worked out ahead of time on the sequences I had. And all the yodeling, for instance, and that sort of thing, already had been recorded by Churchill or some other musician and worked out with the story department so that a great deal of what a director does on some of the other pictures wasn't done on my sequences on Snow White. That's why I say that it was sort of a different approach from the average - because of Walt's close involvement.

DJ: Now was it Fred Moore who did the dwarfs on your sequence?

WJ: Well, some of the scenes. There were others who also helped. Bill Tytla did the opening scene of the sequence and who was the one who did so many Dopey scenes?..

DJ: Frank Thomas?

WJ: No

DJ: Not Fred Moore?

WJ: No, he was kind of the creator of the dwarfs... I give up. In any event, you're correct in thinking that Fred took the lead on the dwarfs. It was our practice to give the more important scenes to the more capable animators and to augment their work with scenes that were not as important to the picture - action scenes, longer shots, group shots, things like that where the individual personality wasn't the most important part of the scene.

DJ: Did you do that yourself, did you allocate which scenes went to which animator?

WJ: To a certain extent. Walt had a big hand in that on the Snow White picture. I probably less to say about who did what in Snow White than in any other picture I directed. Walt as I said was in on every detail.

DJ: Can you think of anything from the movie that was your idea, that was your own that made it into the picture?

WJ: Aside from the details of what action of the choreography of  the action were to encompass were  my major contribution, I would think. Plus the timing of it - how long a scene would be, where it would come in juxtaposition with other scenes.

DJ: For instance, the dancing style of the dwarfs, almost like a square dance, that was your idea?

WJ: I don't think I approached it that way. We pictured the dwarfs as sort of folky characters and very probably I was thinking more of a mixture of country style Americana with a European flavor. As to the individual actions in that case, I don't have a specific recollection of any of those things.

DJ: And I suppose the sneeze was already pre-determined, probably by Walt?

WJ: The sneeze was definitely worked out before I took the sequence up even to the extent of having recorded a whole bunch of different sneezes, selecting which sneeze, which part of which sneeze went where was very much in my hands but I was working with track that was already [made].I was more like a film editor in relation to that. What they did, all those different things [such as the close-ups of the hands clapping as the scene reached its climax with the sneeze] were suggested by the story sketches and by the continuity on the storyboard and there were variations of what was done and what was done when ..that is, the sequence of action was mine. What I put together was not exactly what was on the storyboard, a,b,c,d,e,f,g. And the pacing of it was mine, the building of the excitement, the increase in tempo, making the scenes shorter -  that sort of thing -  than the previous ones that was mine.

DJ: Was this sequence difficult and did you have any problems in getting it going the way you wanted it?

WJ: I suppose there were. No individual particular problems stands out in my mind other than getting enough work ready for animators fast enough to keep them busy. Trying to meet our deadlines but that was for all our pictures. I don't recall problems with this sequence, it was just a joy to work on.

DJ: Did they film other actors for the dwarfs, besides yourself I mean?

WJ: Yes, different ones.. The fellas would do things. Pearce Pierce I believe did a pretty good Doc and was filmed for some of it. We used to have meeting, a whole bunch of us animators and directors would come back at night - we'd have a meeting over on the soundstage and we'd talk about the characters - we'd talk about what they were like and how they would act, how they would move and anybody who wanted to would get up and demonstrate his idea of what the guy should move like - how he should do this particular thing.

DJ: It's interesting that you came in at night, after work. Was this a lot?

WJ: Oh yes. We had all kinds of meetings at night. This wasn't just on Snow White but especially along about then. We had classes that we attended. Walt hired people from outside to come and teach us. Don Graham to teach the animators.

DJ: Did you go to those classes?

WJ: No, because I wasn't one of the artists at that time.

DJ: When you first came to the studio, were you hired as an artist?

WJ: Yes, I was sort of hired as a pest that Walt hired another to fire me to get me out of his office. I was very persistent.

DJ: Now you came in 1927?

WJ: 1929. No it was 27, you're right [note: actually it was April 1928]. 29 was when we were married. I came there .... I had met Jane who became my wife in art school when I was at the County Art Institute now Otis Parkins and we'd been going together and we liked each other a lot and we were quite serious about getting married and I needed as job and I had always wanted to be a cartoonist - I had wanted to be in animation. But as far as I knew the only animating studios were in New York City and I didn't have way of getting to New York City. And I hadn't finished my art school education, I wasn't really a very good draughtsman, I needed a lot more study before I would become [one] but I found out by accident that there was a person in Hollywood who made cartoons named Walt Disney. One of the girls at the Art Institute had a boyfriend who was working for Walt Disney and from her I got the name and the phone number of the place and I called Walt up and asked for an interview. I didn't know until afterwards that I hit Walt for a job right at the time when he had discovered that he had lost this Oswald character, the rights to it and the release to it. And he didn't have anything else going yet - he was in a transition from that to the Mickies and I came with my samples, he granted me an interview, I came in with my samples and showed them to him and he said "Well you really aren't ready to take a job as an animator yet. You don't draw well enough, you need more training in drawing." I said "All right, now I'm going to be an animator some day, what should I study at art school, where should I go and what should I study in order to learn how to be an animator?" And he said "Well, there isn't really any place you can learn to be an animator except at an animation studio. They don't teach it at anywhere that I know of." I said "All right, that's fine. How would it be if I come to your studio and learn to be an animator here and I'll pay you tuition like I would have to pay at any other school?" And he said "Well godammit Jack, I can't do a thing like that!"

DJ: He called you Jack right off?

WJ: Well he wanted to know what people called me. I can't remember what the next thing was but finally he said  "Look, come in on Monday and we'll see if you can do anything useful around here." So I came in on Monday and they put me busy helping the janitor cleaning off the ink lines and paint off of the cells and separating the ones that were too scratched from the ones that weren't too scratched. And it was shortly after that that everybody left the studio except Iwerks, Les Clark and Johnny Cannon and for a while there was a Mike somebody [Marcus] who ran the camera. In any event, I counted that I was the thirteenth one when I was hired so I figured that thirteen must be my lucky number. So naturally when Walt began to hire people from the East like Ben Sharpsteen , Jack Campbell, Norm Ferguson, Paul Palmer and those guys, they were such great animators and so much better draughtsmen that I wasn't really filling the bill very well. I had gotten to do - had worked up to the point that I was doing animation.

DJ: Not just inbetweening, you were actually animating?

WJ: Yes, I was doing my own scenes and I wasn't doing too well. I didn't know that, I didn't realize how poor my work was compared to the others and I used to come back at night. Walt encouraged us to come back if we wanted to and to animate our own scenes, our own ideas and to show them to him. I was back one night doing that and Walt got into a little trouble editing and putting sound to one of the pictures. I helped Walt work out their method of synchronizing.

DJ: The metronome, right?

WJ: Yes. And I helped him tie the sound up with the picture and I helped him with some things like that and I'd had a little bit of time working on the editing of the pictures and that sort of thing. And one night when I went back there - I wanted to animate a whole picture myself - I was that conceited. I thought I could do it. And I was interested in animation; I liked to make the characters move on the screen, that was what I wanted to do. And I said: "Walt, sometime if it would work out, I'd like to handle a whole picture, if you see a way to let me try it." And I used the wrong work. I meant animate. He thought a meant direct or produce. I didn't find out till after he had already decided to try me out on it that we had a misunderstanding about it. And I was in there happily animating some scenes and he sends Rudy Zamora in and Rudy said:"Walt told me to come in and get some scenes from you, I'm out of work." And so I thought, well gee wiz, here it goes, I'm not going to get to animate the whole picture after all and Walt said I could do it.

DJ: What short was it?

WJ: This was the Castaways. It was picture when Walt had a lot of...he was behind on schedule

and needed something to catch up with and he a lot of footage that had been cut out of other cartoons and it was saved in the morgue. All the animation was done and my first job was to make some kind of a story where we could use all this discarded stuff. The only way I could see to tie all this stuff together was to have Mickey be cast away on an island after his ship was wrecked and to be sort of a Robinson Crusoe character and had all kinds of materials that had come from the ship, including a piano, and all the things that were needed for all the different scenes and it would be on an island were there jungle creatures to use gags about and jungle animals in the various out footage. And Walt had hired a musician when he put me to work on the thing. He said: "I got a new musician I just hired and I want you to work with him on your picture. I want to see if he's any good and if we can use him." So I said fine. That musician happened to be Frank Churchill.

DJ: Could you tell me a little about Frank Churchill. Did he ever tell you, for instance, what his musical influences were? Did he like Mozart or Beethoven, or was it Tchaikovsky or Wagner?

WJ: Oh the only thing that comes to mind there right off...boy this is going back. I recall one time Frank saying Schubert...something about Schubert's use of melody. Melody was the thing about Schubert that was so arresting.  It's all very vague.

DJ: Well Schubert was known for his melodies.

WJ: I don't recall Frank telling me much about his influences.

DJ: Would you say that he liked classical music or did he prefer popular music as a musician himself?

WJ: Frank had great facility in playing either on the piano. Frank was a pianist. He was a pianist more than he was a composer.

DJ: Really?

WJ: Yes. Before he came to Walt to work, he had been playing mood music and, of course, when sound came in they didn't need this but he had been playing sad music when the actors were supposed to be acting sad and happy music when they were supposed to be happy to help them with their acting. In fact, he had a little folding organ that folded all up. It had bellows that you pumped with your feet like this and he didn't have any use for it any more so he gave it to me. And I had that for many years - the girls used to play with it. But Frank was pianist. Working with Frank was so different from working with Leigh Harline, for instance.

DJ: I know that Leigh Harline was the more sophisticated musician.

WJ: Yes, he was a composer first and he played the piano sort of like doing the pick and shovel work. Frank, when he sat down at the piano and played the music that you were working out for the picture, the score that resulted never sounded any better than the way Frank played it on the piano. With Leigh Harline you had to learn to make allowances for the fact that you'd hear the melody he was playing when the thing was done, but the feeling of it, the mood that it would create, the feeling that it would extend to you, wasn't there with the piano, you just had to trust Leigh that it was going to sound a whole lot different after he orchestrated it.

DJ: Did these composers do their own orchestration or did they have another person, for instance, did Churchill actually orchestrate his songs or did he have an assistant [do it]?

WJ: He very possibly did in the very early days but it wouldn't have been long before they would have had someone to orchestrate.

DJ: And you wouldn't recall who that might have been for Snow White?

WJ: No, we already had expanded the music department quite a bit by that time. I'm not sure if Al Mallotte was there already or Paul Smith.

DJ: Paul Smith worked on some of the incidental music on Snow White.  Did Leigh Harline do his own orchestrations, do you think, since he was a composer?

WJ: He would have been much more likely to have done it.

DJ: It's amazing that Churchill wrote so many memorable songs and yet as you say, he wasn't really a composer. He must have had a lot of talent under his belt.

WJ: Frank was something else when it came to working with him.

DJ: What was he like, can you talk about it?

WJ: Yeah, Frank was just a fun person to work with. He did what he did with such apparent ease and he was so willing to adapt his music, to change it to what you needed. He seemed to be able to take notes out or add notes in and still make it work. If you're having a little trouble fitting your action to the music, he had great facility in adjusting the music and still make it come out right. He had such a variety of different tunes, of different things that he could suggest when you were first working with him on a short subject. And you'd have a sequence of action and you'd talk to him about it and the feeling of it and so forth and he'd suggest music for it and if you didn't like it he'd suggest something else and he could just go on and on and on and on.

DJ: Could he remember the music without writing it down, like if you preferred one of the earlier options?

WJ: I don't recall he had any trouble if you wanted one of the earlier suggestions he played. He'd play something: "Was this it, was that it?" "Yeah, that was it" and we'd work on that one. However, when we selected a tune, he'd write down a melody line with a signature on it. We'd have that to come back to.

DJ: Do you remember any of his pranks. I understand he was very playful, he liked to... Shamus Culhane told me he liked to sit at the piano and fart and then pick out the note and put that in the song.

WJ: Yes (laughs).

DJ: That's true, then?

WJ: Yes. Also, he and Earl Duval got caught by one of the secretaries when she came in the room, trying to light one. He was bent over and Earl was there with a match. The minute the door opened, Frank said: "Where is that knife, I dropped that knife here somewhere."(becomes convulsed with laughter).

DJ: Who was the secretary.

WJ: Carolyn Shafer, she later on married Frank.

DJ: Oh that was Walt's secretary.

WJ: Yes. I have a knife that Frank Churchill gave me which was the knife, in fact, he said he was looking for. He picked it out of a claw machine.

DJ: Claw machine? Oh yes, I remember those, in the amusement parks.

WJ: Yes, you put your nickel in and it grabs some candy but there's also little things in there. Frank was very good at operating that thing. He used to like to show off and say: "What do you want out of there? What do you want out of there?" Whoever was with him would say: "See if you can get that." And he was very good at getting the thing over and grabbing it and it pleased him that he could do that better than practically every one else. Another thing I remember about Frank and the playful end of it was seeing him on driving range hitting golf balls. He had the most unprofessional stance I have ever scene. He played with both knees bent sort of in a half squat and he didn't have the twist that other people had - he hit the ball like you would with a hockey stick or a baseball bat and he'd give the thing a vicious cut and he could send it a long way from where he wanted it. He was good at it, but I don't mean professionally. He couldn't get out with the real pros but compared with the friends he played with he was good. I didn't play myself but often would go with him and Earl Duvall.

DJ: Who was Earl Duvall?

WJ: He was one of our early story men - an artist and an idea man and he had made layouts with me for a while and that's how come he and Frank were together in the Music Room the time Frank was looking for his knife.

DJ: That must have been some times.

WJ: Yes there were a lot of pranks going on. Walt didn't discourage it. We didn't just clown around - we worked hard but Walt didn't measure your value to the studio by whether you had your nose down to the grindstone for exactly eight hours every day. It was the contribution you made - as long as you got your job done and didn't interfere with anybody else getting their job done how long you took and when you did it didn't matter. I got in there, as I told you, very accidentally, I got into directing pictures without meaning to. I had absolutely no qualifications for being a director, none whatsoever. Had few enough to be an animator. But Walt didn't understand that anybody who wanted to couldn't do anything they wanted to do. He could,  he didn't understand that other people couldn't. So I spent the rest of my years there doing a job I didn't know how to do, working up a plow horse to try to keep up with the race horse and putting in a lot of extra hours in order to come out even.

DJ: You're very modest. Some of your work is considered the greatest work ever done.

WJ: That may be others' opinions, it's not mine.

DJ: You did The Old Mill , I understand.

WJ: Yes.

DJ: Well, that's just one of your highlights.

WJ: I loved to work with musicians. I like musical pictures.

DJ: Getting back to what you said about your nose to the grindstone. Did Walt have deadlines, specifically, let's say Snow White? When he put you there to direct some of these scenes and to get them to the animators, was there a deadline, like, by April first this scene had to be given out to the animators. Was there anything like that going on?

WJ: Not that kind of a deadline. Not scene by scene. When scenes went to animators was dictated by when the animator who was to do that scene finished what he was doing before. The cardinal sin was to let an animator be out of work. There were deadlines for the pictures and deadlines for the individual sequences within the picture as to when they should go to camera as far as the director was concerned. These deadlines could be, and often were, adjusted by the time we didn't meet out deadlines.

DJ: That must have been especially true on a picture like Snow White?

WJ: Yes. Could I digress and tell you a little thing about Snow White?

DJ: Please.

WJ: When Walt started to make Snow White, everybody that he talked to in Hollywood, all the best advice he could get, was discouraging. The consensus was that nobody would sit still to watch a cartoon, a feature-length cartoon, the audiences would walk out on it. With that in mind Walt went ahead and made Snow White and we had the preview I believe at the Carthay Circle Theater.

DJ: That's correct. December 21, 1937.

WJ: You know more about Snow White than I do. In any event, the picture was partway through when some people got up and started to walk out.

DJ: Oh, you're talking about the preview. I don't remember where that was but it wasn't at the Carthay Circle.

WJ: Well, wherever it was, that's right the Carthay Circle was the opening wasn't it?

DJ: Yes, I think the preview was at a Fox theater.

WJ: You've heard of this then.

DJ: They had to get back for a final exam or something.

WJ: Yeah they had to get back to school but Walt thought....

DJ: He must have been devastated. You all must have been devastated.

WJ: Yeah. Was a bad moment.

DJ: When did you finally find out?

WJ: Well Walt decided he better go out into the foyer and listen and see what they were saying when they went out. He got out there and ran into the theater manager who explained to him what was going on so he didn't have to commit suicide (laughs).

DJ: Do you remember the big story meeting when Walt got together several artists one night and acted out the whole story of Snow White, even acting the animal parts?

WJ: That would be par for the course on any picture. When we would have our story meetings, Walt would get up and act things out to demonstrate what he had in mind like the little baby bear that needed to break something and would pick up a rock and tip too far back with it and Walt acted it out and fell backwards on his chair (laughs).

DJ: I notice that in the early story stages of Snow White, there is a lot of comical routines that were later dropped, like the early arrival of the prince who originally serenades Snow White with his mandolin while his horse watches the proceedings from the wall, one front leg bent at the knee under his chin. I suppose that since the shorts were mainly comical, it would be natural that in the early stages, at least, Snow White would get a similar treatment.

WJ: We were all encouraged to make all kinds of suggestions. It didn't matter if we thought they were in line or not. Walt wanted any suggestions anybody had of any sort.

DJ: Do you remember any particular thing that you thought of that was actually used in Snow White?

WJ: No I don't. As I said, the sequences I had on Snow White were very well worked out before I got them. Very thoroughly worked out.

DJ: Do you recall who the script writers were for the scenes you did?

WJ: No I don't recall. When you say script writers, we didn't have scripts, we had storyboards. 

DJ: But wasn't it typed into scripts when the dialogue was to be recorded and also so it could be read and followed for each sequence?

WJ: That would be taken from the storyboard. Underneath the sketches was written the dialogue that would be spoken during that scene.

DJ: Since you worked on The Old Mill, you were involved with the multiplane camera. Can you tell me about Garity [the co-inventor] and the invention of this thing and some of the problems and miracles that it did.

WJ: What I can tell you about my experiences with it was the The Old Mill was supposed to be a test of the mutiplane, to see if it worked. Somehow, we were so held up in working on The Old Mill by assignments of animators because Snow White was in work at that time and animators that I should have had were pulled away just before I got to them and other animators were  substituted because Snow White got preference on everything. And we got our scenes planned and worked out for the multiplane effects and by that time some of the sequences on Snow White were being photographed. The multiplane camera itself had all kinds of bugs in it that had to be worked out. We were held up until so late that I actually did work on another short - I don't remember which short. I don't even remember if I finished it up - did work on some other picture to keep myself busy while we could get facilities to go ahead on The Old Mill. By the time they had got the bugs out of the multiplane camera, they had multiplane scenes for Snow White to shoot and they got it busy on those first. Finally in order to get The Old Mill out the scenes that had been planned for multiplane had to be converted to the flat camera to do the best they could. You won't find more than a very few multiplane scene in The Old Mill.

DJ: I wasn't aware of that.

WJ: I've had messed up schedules on pictures but I've never had a more messed up one than I can remember for The Old Mill.

DJ: Did you actually go to the camera yourself to see how it worked?

WJ: Oh yes, all of us had our noses in everything that was going on at the studio all the time.

DJ: Well, can you tell me about some of the effects. They mentioned about backlighting under the glass for some of the candle effects.

WJ: I don't know how that effect were worked out - or, I think there was a dark thing underneath with a pin hole in it and a light behind that.

DJ: Did you the man who designed the multiplane camera, Bill Garity?

WJ: Yes. Bill Garity was working for - he was an engineer, he was a sound engineer. Was it the silent film People in New York where they worked out a system of recording sound?

DJ: Pat Powers Cinephone was the first wasn't it?

WJ: Yes. Bill Garity came with that system to the studio in the very, very, very early days. That was a system - a method of reproducing sound by horizontal dark lines in the sound track instead of a wiggly line; and the broader they were or narrower they were had to do with the loudness and softness and the closeness together or fartherness apart had to do with the pitch. That was our first system that was used and Bill Garity appeared with this marvelous thing at the studio and he stayed on until he was in charge of the sound for years and years.

DJ: Do you recall Walt ever discussing with you about his plans for the multiplane or his discussing any dissatisfaction with the pictures or about getting more depth or realism?

WJ: Well, only in that that was one of the aspects of the pictures he always emphasized.

DJ: You mean the realism?

WJ: Yes. You see we faked that before we ever got to the multiplane by using sliding cells  - we moved the foreground cell faster than the back cell.

DJ: Who figured that out?

WJ: My goodness, I don't know.

DJ: I thought maybe you did.

WJ: No. That was used quite a while before the - before I remember the concept of the multiplane camera. The multiplane camera was really just an extension of that you know. It was a matter of instead of having the cells just on the flat bed and moving them differently, it was a matter of separating them. So that would too automatically get the difference in speed. So instead of having to guess how it would look if you moved one 3/16s of an inch every frame, and the other one 1/8 of an inch every frame, instead of guessing at it you got a more realistic effect because you were actually using perspective. But how and when and by whom that was conceived I really don't know. It's such a natural thing that probably more than one person had the idea. It was a matter of finding a way to make it work with the cartoons.

DJ: Garity seems to get credit for it. On the original US patent drawings, Garity's name is given along with McFadden.

WJ: I don't recall that name.

DJ: Now here on this layout sketch is the term "Truck in cam[era] to 3 field." Would you as a director make that kind of decision, or for a truck in for a close up?

WJ: Essentially I would be responsible for it but whether I would suggest it or whether the layout man would suggest it I don't know. Our layout men were sort of the equivalent of a camera man in a live action picture. They created the camera angles that were used.

DJ: I thought that was the director, I thought that was your job.

WJ: Well, we worked together. But to actually put in down on paper it was their job to make the drawing that indicated the actual setup. A lot of it came right directly from the story department. You find two different sketches that obviously should be in the same scene by moving the camera. We all worked closely together. It's awfully hard to say whose idea anything was. It was a team effort.

DJ: So a typical day for you was to go to the studio. Where did you live at that time [when Snow White was in production]?

WJ: It's difficult to say. We moved quite a few times until 1936. Then we moved from a little apartment up on Hyperion Street right near the studio out to our three-acre place in what is now Sunland. We had owned it for quite some time and I didn't want to go in debt so I was saving up enough money to build a little house on the place - we bought it years before. The builder, Frank Pearlhearst was the same one that built several of the buildings on Hyperion Street for Walt.

DJ: You drove to the studio?

WJ: Yes. Sunland is in the foothills north of North Hollywood - up in the Verdego Hills.

DJ: Did you have your own office at the time?

WJ: I was in the Music Room. I shared that with the musician, my assistant director.

DJ: Who was that?

WJ: Graham Hyde I think was with me at that time.

DJ: And Churchill was there and Leigh Harline?

WJ: Well on Snow White I don't remember who the musician was in the Music Room. It wouldn't have been Churchill. Churchill and Larry Morey worked together in their own office in a different part of the building. There would have been some musician with me - quite possibly it was Leigh Harline, he was with me for many years.

DJ: He did a lot of the background music for Snow White.

WJ: Yes. He was with me on the shorts along about that time. Probably he was the musician. And in the adjoining room with a door through so you wouldn't have to go out in the hallway was the layout mans' room - would be the layout man with two or three assistants.

DJ: Why was the entertainment section that you were on so much fun, as you said?

WJ: Well, partly because we worked closer with Walt on that picture than any since the very, very, very early ones. Partly because it was a fun sequence. The gags were funny, the music was fun to work with. The problems we had were interesting ones to work out. The animators I worked with were great guys, everything.

DJ: Do you remember any of the interesting problems that were worked out?

WJ: Just the adaptation of the business to the soundtrack. You got a storyboard there and you got a soundtrack and you got to make one fit the other. And there are a myriad of decisions that you have to make. Partly it was the excitement of the whole thing.

DJ: Would it be safe to say that you at least partly choreographed the dwarfs dancing around in you sequence?

WJ: Let me say this. It was my decision what would be done regardless of where the inspiration came from. The action to be used, it was my decision to decide which one of the possible actions would be used, within the limitations of what I understood from Walt. I tried to be an extension of Walt's fingers. I tried to put on film what I thought was in Walt's mind. The details, making it work, how it was to be done, were up to me. I didn't make Jackson pictures, I made Walt Disney pictures.

DJ: Yes, but it would have been different from some else.

WJ: It would have been different. Maybe better.

DJ: I doubt it. And the last sequence was such a beautiful scene because that's the one scene... it's interesting that you had that scene. Of all the movies that Disney ever made, that sequence is the most up-lifting. There's never an ending to any other picture that quite compares with magic of the dwarfs jumping around and saying goodbye.

WJ: This wasn't  feed by just that scene. This was done because Walt was able to create a picture that lead up to that scene and which the audience felt very strongly sympathetic to the dwarfs and to the little animals. It was through the empathy for the dwarfs that the picture was successful. Snow White as a character - it wouldn't have hit you with the same impact what happened to her. You wouldn't have cared as much what happened to her as how the dwarfs felt about it. So what is so good about that scene is the feeling that has been built up in the audience before they get to that scene plus some wonderful animation of the grieving dwarfs.

DJ: But the way you did it I still think was commendable.

WJ: It worked.

DJ: It certainly did work.

This article is Copyrighted © 1988 by David Johnson, and has beed printed here for the first time in Animation Artist Magazine with Johnson's permission.  David Johnson is a monthly columnist for Animation Artist Magazine, and we thank him for his  insight and willingness to contribute his knowledge and talent to the animation world


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Disney Art School Part 1
The Four Faces of Snow
Not Rouge!
The Image Part 1
The Image Part 2
Wilford Jackson
Grim Natwick

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